The images coming out of the Upper Midwest and High Plains region of the U.S. this spring are reminiscent of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Relentless wind coupled with dry conditions have led to severe soil erosion, and the situation was made worse in areas lacking cover crops.
The drifting topsoil covered roads, filled ditches and gave fertile fields a desert-like appearance.
Drought persisting through the winter in North and South Dakota, and the northern half of Minnesota, made the fields particularly vulnerable when the winds arrived.
The Foster County Soil Conservation District in North Dakota reported that a dust storm on March 29-30 resulted in topsoil losses of 12 inches or more in some areas. Soybean fields, including no-till acres, were especially vulnerable to the windy conditions, according to the district.
Wind erosion has been a longstanding issue in the Dakotas, but could farmland in the East be at risk as well?
Not really, according to Brittany Clark, a field and forage crops educator with Penn State Extension. While wind erosion can occur in Pennsylvania, she said, the greater threat for soil loss comes from water.
“The main concern is prolonged rain events where the soil profile is saturated,” Clark said.
Kitty O’Neil, a field crop and soil specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York, said wind erosion can occur in the East, but on a smaller scale than in the West. She witnessed such an occurrence in northern New York on fields that were plowed in the fall.
“There was a light coating of snow, and the tips of the soil lumps were poking through,” O’Neil said. “You could see the discoloration in the snow where the wind carried the soil sideways.”
O’Neil’s encounter isn’t a common occurrence in the East, and wind erosion likely won’t emerge as a significant threat due to several factors.
Cover Crops and No-Till Critical in Erosion Management
The fields in the Eastern U.S. aren’t as large as the expanses in the West and Midwest, and they are planted with a variety of crops rather than primarily corn and soybeans, as in the western states. Much of the annual rainfall in the East occurs in the spring and fall, O’Neil added, allowing for better establishment of cover crops to protect the soil over the winter.
According to Clark, annual precipitation in Pennsylvania averages 45 inches. In the eastern portions of the Dakotas, annual precipitation is around 25 inches, and it’s as low as 15 inches annually in other parts of the region.
“They typically experience a lack of moisture that doesn’t support cover crop germination, and harsh winters that reduce overwintering success of many species,” she said. “Cover crop adoption in these areas is significantly less and they tend to plant less diverse mixes if at all.”
Topography is another key factor in mitigating the risk of wind erosion in the eastern states when compared to the flat landscape of the Midwest.
“Our fields are broken up by frequent windbreaks, such as rows of trees, so the wind can’t gather as much speed in those open areas,” O’Neil said.
Despite the regional differences, the situation in the Midwest caught the eyes of many growers in the East. Clark said there was a lot of discussion among Pennsylvania farmers on social media about the erosion occurring in the Dakotas, and she was happy to see the awareness, even if it isn’t a major threat here.
“It got a lot of attention in the East, and it served as a reminder for the importance of no-till practices and cover crops,” Clark said. “One of the goals accomplished with cover crops is erosion management, and even though we may not have the issue with wind, we have less available topsoil to be lost in comparison to the Dakotas.”
And it doesn’t mean farmers in the East can afford to be complacent about erosion. While the utilization of cover crops and no-till has increased, O’Neil said there is still room to improve.
According to USDA data from 2017, there were more than 104 million acres in the country planted with no-till, 97.8 million acres managed with reduced tillage and 80 million acres under intensive tillage.
Continuing the upward trend of no-till acres is the most effective way to combat soil erosion of any type, Clark said.
“We have more erosion challenges here with water running downhill than the long, windswept areas in the West,” she said. “There is less open soil today, but we still have a long way to go with tillage.”